Saturday, April 2, 2022

A Hidden Alvar Meadow Treasure

 


 

It was two years ago, on a crisp April morning—as I walked the naturalized trail through Peterborough—that magic found me. 

 

I was heading north and unsure where the trail would take me. My muse had brought me here to explore my new environment; I’d recently moved from the bustle of Toronto and felt the restlessness of discovery. The trail wound mostly through backyards and cleared parkland, lined with mixed woodland of locust, black walnut, maple and oak and clearings bordered by thickets of sumac and buckthorn. I caught glimpses of houses and backyards as I walked the trail, surrounded by a chorus of lively birdsong. Robins and cardinals. Goldfinches. Red-winged blackbirds brought fond memories of childhood with their signature conk-la-ree! Chickadees flitted across the trail and sang their chickadee-dee-dee. A group of grackles took over a lilac-buckhorn thicket, their chatter sounding like an overused squeaky clothes line.

 

The trail crossed a main road then a minor one and the backyards became harder to see as the shrubs and trees that lined the trail grew dense.

 

Then, at a set of rocks on the east side of the trail, the thicket opened to a grassy rise and I glimpsed a small path, leading up the rise. The path was more like a depression in the grass where repetitive footfalls had created a trail of sorts. Several mature buckthorns and willows dotted the crest of the rise. And beyond the crest … well, that was my question. What lay beyond it? From my current position I could only make out the possibility of forest in the distance. The main trail up to this point had been through forest scrub of sumac, dogwood, black locust and other shrubs dense enough to obscure what lay beyond them.

 


Drawn to what lay beyond the rise, I turned onto the path, boots crunching on a brittle layer of frost that had settled on the grass and leaf litter. It was a steep climb through slippery wet grass. When I crested the hill, I stopped and inhaled with wonder at the unexpected view below me. It was as though I’d walked through a portal. Gone was any sign of Peterborough suburbia; below me, stretching in all directions lay a vast natural meadow, with a maple-beech woodland rising to the east; striking white limbs of poplar trees marked the leading edge of the monochrome forest. 


 


The meadow that stretched before me was a gently rolling landscape of pale gold grasses and a chaos of strewn limestone rocks and gravel dotted by russet junipers and the gray-brown umber of dwarf hawthorn, buckthorn and sumac shrubs. In a lower depression in the centre of the meadow, a grove of young cedar trees added splashes of green to the gold-copper mosaic.  

 

I made my way down into the rock-strewn meadow and was immediately struck by the silence. As though a hush had settled there, a kind of sacred humility stayed me. I felt unexpectedly blessed. I walked with silent steps as if in a church, toward a grove of stunted sumacs and came suddenly face to face with two white-tailed deer. We were both startled. In that protracted moment when our gazes met, time paused and the world stopped. Then one deer sprang away, followed by the other, their shocking white behinds bobbing as they fled through the sumacs toward the forest.

 

As if by design, at that exact moment, it began to snow. Huge flakes fell lazily like confetti in a mild breeze. Then it came down in a thick passion. 

 

I felt the presence of magic.




 

Alvar Ecosystem

 

In the next two years, I returned many times to this magic place of barren beauty. My good friend and naturalist Merridy suggested that this meadow was likely an alvar, a distinct ecosystem that establishes on a limestone or dolostone plain with thin or no soil, and characterized by sparse grassland vegetation. This made sense to me, given the habitats I’d observed. Also called a pavement barrenof limestone pavementand a calcareous grassland, alvars are often flooded in the spring and affected by drought in midsummer. Because of this, alvars support a distinct prairie-like community of grass, lichen and mosses, as well as stunted trees and shrubs.




 The term ‘alvar’ originated in Sweden to describe the unique ecosystem of the Swedish island of Öland, with its unique exposed limestone slabs. Alvars are a rare ecosystem; they are found in a handful of places, including the eastern European Baltic region, the United Kingdom and Ireland. In North America, close to 75% of alvars are located in Ontario. Ecologists describe seven habitat types for alvar ecosystems in Ontario. These include: tall grassy meadows, tall forb-rich meadows, low grassy meadows, low forb-rich meadows, dry grassland, rock margin grassland, and bare rock flats. In my various wanderings through thisalvar meadow over the seasons, I recognized several of these habitats, from wet marshy lowland grass-forb meadow to dry tall grasslands and rock-strewn stretches of dry flatland.

 




Given the role of disturbance in the formation of alvars, I studied the lower ‘bowl’ of the meadow more closely for signs. An old structure may have once stood where semi-structured rock piles were arranged to form a square.  A patch of young cedars and birches—both flood-tolerant—surrounded it. I’d seen this same successional phenomenon in the Trent Nature Sanctuary, where it had been previously farmed. At the southern rising edge of the alvar stood a farmhouse, accessed by the little minor road I’d crossed earlier on the trail. I considered that this alvar was dominated by early sere plants, often the first to colonize a disturbed environment—lilac, hawthorn, buckthorn, sumac. Had there been a fire through here? Had someone tried to cultivate this site? It was surrounded by rural and residential development with a dedicated parkland (Trent Nature Sanctuary) of a drumlin maple-beech forest bordering it to the east. Attempts to cultivate parts of the nature sanctuary at one time are also evident.

 

This place remains a bit of a mystery and I am intrigued to solve it. Stay tuned…

 

  


 




Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Friday, February 25, 2022

When Snow Dazzles...



I grew up in southern Quebec, where the first snow of the season often came from the sky in a thick passion. Huge flakes of unique beauty settled on my coat sleeves and within minutes I was covered in snow. I would stand enraptured and study each one as I could. Snow wraps everything in a blanket of soft acceptance. It creates a dazzling face on a dark Earth. It refuses to distinguish between artificial and natural. It covers everything—decorated house, shabby old car, willowy trees, manicured lawn—beneath its white mantle. It quiets the Earth.



Have you ever gone for an evening walk in the fresh crisp snow, boots crunching, snow glistening in the moonlight? Each step is its own symphony of textured sound. A kind of collaboration with the deep of the night and Nature’s own whisperings.


Snow is a shape shifter, charging down in a fierce blizzard and as glittering hoarfrost that forms on cold, clear nights. Snow is a gypsy, conspiring with the clever wind to form mini-tornadoes and swirling on the cold pavement like misbehaving fairies. It drifts like a vagabond and piles up, cresting over the most impressive structure, creating phantoms out of icons. Some people, fearful of the chaos and confusion that snow brings, hide indoors out of the cold. Others embrace its many forms, punching holes through the snow crust to find the treasure of powder beneath or ploughing through its softness, leaving behind an ivory trail of adventure.

Snow is magic. It reveals as it cloaks. Animals leave their telltale tracks behind their silent sleuthing. No two snowflakes are alike. Yet every non-aggregated snowflake forms a six-fold radial symmetry, based on the hexagonal alignment of water molecules when they form ice. Tiny perfectly shaped ice-flowers drift down like world peace and settle in a gentle carpet of white. Oddly, a snowflake is really clear and colourless. It only looks white because the whole spectrum of light bounces off the crystal facets in diffuse reflection (i.e., at many angles). My son, who skies, extols “champagne powder”—very smooth and dry snow, ideal for gliding on. On powder days, after a fresh snowfall, mountain trees form glabrous Henry Moore-like sculptures. Skiers wind their way between the “snow ghosts,” leaving meandering double-helix tracks behind them.


Snow is playful. It beckons you to stick out your tongue and taste the clouds. Snow is like an unruly child. Snow is the trickster. It stirs things up. Makes a mess. It is the herald of change, invigorating, fresh and wondrous. Cars skid in it and squeal with objection. Grumpy drivers honk their horns, impatient to get home; while others sigh in their angry wake. Brown slush flies in a chaotic fit behind a bus and splatters your new coat. Boys and girls of all ages venture outside, mischief glinting in their eyes, and throw snowballs. Great battles are fought in backyards where children build awesome forts and defend them with fierce determination.


In the end, snow—a solid form of water—remains implacable, untouched by our spurious activities. It lies beyond our tedious attempts to salt it, dirty it, move it or make it, turn it into slush, sublimate it or even desublimate it. Snow, like the water it is, cannot be ‘owned’ or kept. Ultimately, it will do its job to energize the earth, give life, then quietly transform, take its leave, and move on. Along with its various water cousins, it will move mountains particle by particle with a subtle hand; it will paint the world with beauty then return to its fold and rejoice; it will transcend time and space to share and teach and transform a world.




Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Monday, December 27, 2021

When Snow Turns Into Passion...

 


It started with a sudden hail then light snow followed by sunshine. But even as the sun shone, more snow fell. The stubborn river kept glinting in the sunlight. Huge flakes fluttered down and the river sparkled. Some trees lit up like torches behind the thick snowflakes. 



When I got to the marsh, the snow came down in a passion and the wind picked up. Huge flakes fell in a slant and covered the thin ice on the marsh edges. It covered the ducks, their backs full of snow, who ignored it all and just clucked and quacked and drifted close to me in curiosity. 



The clouds grew dark. Then the snow filled the sky and I could barely see the trees as I walked through the forest… 



By the time I made it to the path by the river, the snow was seized by a fierce wind and flew sideways.



Then, suddenly, like a hand on a shoulder, it all stopped. The wind and the snow. The sun emerged behind a dark scudding cloud and lit the water, now calm in the beauty after the storm.




Nina Munteanu
 is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.


Thursday, October 28, 2021

Cardamom Milk Tea—The Next Best Thing to Ambrosia


 

I’ve been thinking of cardamom lately. 

 

I remember having an incredible tea in an authentic Indian restaurant on Gerard Street in Toronto. I remember its rich and sweet creamy taste. There was something exotic about its lingering taste and aroma. I knew it had cardamom in it, but I remember nothing else about it. When I mentioned this recently to a client, who is from India, he said I was thinking of Cardamom Milk Tea.

 

Cardamom Milk Tea is a spicy and sweet herbal tea made from the seed pods of the cardamom plant. The seeds can be infused directly in hot water or first ground into cardamom powder. Cardamom plants are native to Asia, but are frequently grown in other regions including Guatemala and Sri Lanka. The plant belongs to the same family as ginger and features pale green or beige seeds.

 

Cardamom is one of the world’s ancient spices. Native to the western Ghats in the moist forests of southern India, it is currently cultivated in India, Sri Lanka, and Guatemala, Indo China and Tanzania. Guatemala accounts for more than 50% of the global production. The fruits are picked or clipped from the stems just before maturity, cleansed, and dried in the sun or in a heated curing chamber.

 

The ancient Egyptians chewed cardamom seeds as a tooth cleaner. The Greeks and Romans used it for its pungent aroma. It was a main ingredient in perfumes and aromatic oils. Vikings first discovered this spice during their travels and brought it back to Scandinavia. 

 

Two types of cardamom can be used to brew tea: green cardamom and black cardamom. Green cardamom comes from the plant known by the botanical name Elettaria cardamomum. This type of cardamom boasts a strong, intense flavor that is both spicy and slightly sweet. The Epicentredescribes it as “warm and eucalyptine with camphorous and lemony undertones.” The green pods are the ones I typically see at the store and what I buy. Inside the little furrowed green pod are brown-black seeds in double rows with about six seeds in each row.

 

I found some wonderful recipes on how to make Cardamom Milk Tea and now make it a few times a week when my mood stirs for it. I find this warm elixir a soothing, comforting drink that easily replaces coffee or hot chocolate for its comfort-factor and rich flavour-factor. The huge bonus is its many health benefits. See below! 



 

 

Health Benefits of Cardamom Tea

 

Now, for the good part. Besides tasting divine, cardamom tea provides many health benefits. The seeds, oils and extracts of cardamom have impressive medicinal properties and have been used in traditional medicine for centuries.

 

Cardamom boasts anti-inflammatory properties that protect heart health and is frequently used as an antidepressant to boost mood. SenchaTeaBar lists several other benefits:

 

Weight loss and prevention of serious disease:cardamom tea may help accelerate weight loss by streamlining the body's digestive processes. Cardamom works to prevent the buildup of fat while helping the liver process waste products. Studies have shown that ground cardamom helps prevent obesity. Researchers found that cardamom improved glucose intolerance and prevented the deposit of abdominal fats. Cardamom was also shown to ameliorate fibrosis. Researchers found that cardamom consumption increased insulin sensitivity and decreased bad LDL cholesterol in pre-diabetic women.

 

Good for oral health:cardamom tea helps protect dental health by inhibiting bacterial growth. Drinking cardamom tea can help neutralize bacteria that grow on the surface of teeth (and cause dental caries) and prevent plaque buildup, cavities, and dental caries. The antibacterial properties of cardamom also effectively treat halitosis—more commonly known as bad breath. Bad breath is caused when bacteria builds up in the mouth and begins to feed on food particles. Cardamom helps eliminate the bacteria to keep your breath fresh all day long.

 

Boosts immune system:cardamom tea may help treat and prevent the common cold and flu. That's because cardamom is packed with antioxidants and vitamins that fight off viruses, fungi, and bacterium. Researchers found that cardamom effectively prevents viruses including streptococcus, which causes sore throat and is effective against staph infections and fungal infections including candida.

 

Protects heart health:cardamom contains high levels of potassium that are good for heart health. Potassium works as a vasodilator, decreasing inflammation and pressure on arteries and blood vessels. Drinking cardamom tea regularly may help lower high blood pressure. It can help improve blood circulation and lower your risk of heart attack and blood clots.

 

Digestive aid:cardamom tea has long been used as a digestive aid to soothe stomach ailments including gas and bloating. It was used in Turkey and Arabic societies to treat intestinal worms. Crushed cardamom seeds have anti-inflammatory properties that soothe irritated stomach muscles. This helps to prevent the contractions that cause stomach pains.

 

Cardamom is a natural carminative, which means it relieves gas. Drinking cardamom tea during or after a meal can help streamline digestion and prevent gas. Some research also shows that cardamom tea may be beneficial in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome although results have been inconclusive.

 

Like ginger tea, cardamom tea can help treat nausea. Sip this hot tea before you board a boat or plane if you suffer from motion sickness. Drinking cardamom tea may also help ease morning sickness, but make sure to consult a physician before drinking cardamom tea if you are pregnant.



 

Making Cardamom Tea

 

Cardamom tea pairs well with black tea leaves. The spicy notes of cardamom also pair well with coconut milk, dairy milk or oat milk (which is what I use). You can use honey or raw sugar to sweeten.

Ingredients:

 

·      Raw sugar (1 Tbsp)

·      Tea leaves (1 Tbsp; I use Assam black tea)

·      Milk (1 glass; I use oat milk because I am currently avoiding cow’s milk)

·      Water (third of a glass)

·      Cardomom (3 pods; I use the green ones)

 




Bring the water to a rolling boil in a stove top pot. Add tea, cardamom and sugar then simmer the tea for 1-5 minutes; it makes the tea strong and brings out the flavour. 



Add milk to the boiling tea. Wait for it to boil. It will rise up into a froth. Simmer down for several minutes. Then strain into a cup and drink while wonderfully hot.



 

Possible Side Effects of Cardamom Tea

Cardamom tea has not been shown to have any serious side effects when consumed in moderation. However, this herbal tea may interact with certain medications so it's a good idea to talk to your doctor before drinking cardamom tea if you have a health condition. Research shows cardamom may interact with blood thinning medications and some antidepressants so limit or avoid use if you take these medications. Cardamom tea may cause allergic reactions in certain individuals. If you experience symptoms including runny nose, itchy throat, or difficulty breathing when drinking cardamom tea, stop use immediately. Don't drink cardamom tea if you are allergic to either of the cardamom plants.


 Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications in 2020. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

 

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Paradox of Details: The Role of Place in Story





 

A few weeks ago, I (virtually) participated in When Words Collide, one of Canada’s prime writing festivals in Calgary, Alberta. I was a featured writer, sitting on several panels and conducting presentations and lectures.

 

One of the two presentations I did was on the role of place in story. 

 

The role of place in story is a topic close to my heart and one I recently wrote an entire writing guidebook on: The Ecology of Story: World as Character. In my coaching sessions with writers and in my writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto, I’ve observed in the novice writer a need for more effective integration of setting and place in story. All too often, the lack of meaningful integration translated into a lost opportunity to explore the POV character and the story’s theme. The lack of meaningful use of place in story can result in a lacklustre story, overly vague characterizations and a story that lacks metaphoric depth and relevance.

 

At the very heart of a story is a portrait of a place…




 

The presentation and following discussion drew from my guidebook Ecology of Storyand overviewed topics covered in the book, such as:

 

·      Place as character & archetype

·      Place as metaphor (personification, symbols, allegory)

·      Place and first impressions (openings)

·      Place and emotion (over time and by POV)

·      Place through the senses

·      Place as environmental force (including climate change)

 

We also discussed how characters connect with their environment and I introduced the metaphoric connection between the Mi’kmaq and the white pine forests in Annie Proulx’s Barkskins.

 

I concluded the presentation with a discussion on the “paradox of details”: the more specific description is, the more universal its appeal. This is because the details can establish relevance and realism to the scene and the POV character experiencing them. Vagueness and lack of tangibility are avoided through specificity. The key, however, is to use details that harmonize with the theme and tone of the book: as metaphor. Details as metaphor is what you want to achieve. 

 

Because, as Ray Bradbury once told me, “everything in story is metaphor.” 





 


 

The Ecology of Story: World as Character is presented in two parts: Part 1 provides a comprehensive summary of the science of ecology, the study of relationships, and links to useful metaphor; Part 2 discusses world and place in story. Here I discuss how the great writers have successfully integrated place with theme, character and plot to create a multi-layered story with depth and meaning. Part 2 also contains several exercises and detailed case studies.